From Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, folklore and fairy-tale has influenced the Gothic across decades and in its many forms. With its origins in oral tradition, folklore is generally considered the generational passing down of narratives bound in a particular culture’s beliefs and customs. Associations with the Gothic perhaps stem from a narrative tendency to focus on the macabre and the taboo alongside an uncanny use of anthropomorphised character in fantastic and supernatural situations.
Indeed, a consideration of the relationship between folklore and the Gothic challenges accepted understandings of the origins of the Gothic itself. As many critics, such as Eino Railo, have discerned; there are many similarities between Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, generally considered the first Gothic novel, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Centering on legends of witchcraft and ghosts, Hamlet is a text which draws upon pre-sixteenth-century folklore tradition and one from which Walpole arguably derived much inspiration for his own tale. In this sense, the Gothic can be seen to mirror folklore in its pattern of generational narrative continuation and, it could be argued, even owes its origins to this ancient oral tradition.
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The fairy-tale can be considered a genre under the umbrella term ‘folklore’ as it traditionally deals with magic in the realms of the fays and is found predominantly in European lore. Most famously remembered today are The Brothers Grimm whose collections of dark, nineteenth century fairy-tales have inspired a recent cinematic surge in classic remakes from the kick-ass rendition Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2012) to the gender-redefining Maleficent (2014). Contemporary, post-feminist culture has had an interesting reaction to the ‘Disneyfied’ adaptations of traditional fairy-tales from the twentieth century, rendering them out-dated and misogynistic and thus undoubtedly contributing to the increasing demand in their cinematic reconsideration. It is not just film, of course, that can be seen to be reworking these classic tales. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a fantastic example of a contemporary writer continuing the folklore tradition as her trolls, dwarfs, boggarts and ‘black dog’ Sirius Black are just a few examples of figures taken straight from English folklore.
In the Gothic Reading Group’s next meeting we will be discussing folklore and fairy-tales in the Gothic and we encourage you to bring a favourite tale or figure along with you. As a die-hard Brontë fan I couldn’t conclude this post without mentioning Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a perfect example of a Gothic text which is not directly ‘folklore’ or ‘fairy-tale’ in its genre, but engages with the tradition through the character of Nelly Dean, the oral narrator of ghost story and familial legend with a fondness for dancing and folk-song. You may wish to bring along a similar Gothic text to discuss its overlooked or hidden connections with folklore. Or if you are interested in a particular geography of lore, Slavic or Germanic perhaps, you may wish to bring along something like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Der Erlkönig which I have left suggestively below for your dark enjoyment…
Tamsin Crowther is an MA Literature student on the Nineteenth Century pathway at Sheffield University. She is interested in Victorian Gothic space and fiction from the Fin-de-Siècle.